Southern Baptists are sometimes accused of believing they are the only people going to heaven, but if one author and pastor is correct, most of them are in trouble as well.
A "point of view" column in the Florida Baptist Witness estimates that no more than 37 percent of Southern Baptist church members are genuinely saved.
Jim Elliff, president of Christian Communicators Worldwide, says only 37 percent of Southern Baptist members on average show up for worship. While shut-ins and those who are sick, out of town or in the military affect the number, Elliff says, those "justifiably absent" are not enough to alter the picture.
"Even if you generously grant that all 37 percent are true believers--an estimation that most pastors would say is way off the mark--one still has a church membership that is more dead than alive," Elliff said.
"If we are honest, we have to ask ourselves, 'Do Southern Baptists believe in a regenerate membership?'"
Elliff, pastor of Christ Fellowship, a group of house churches in Kansas City, says more persons ought to attend a church than are on its membership roll, but instead the opposite is true.
According to statistics by LifeWay Christian Recources, he said, out of 16,287,494 members of Southern Baptist churches, only 6,024,289 on average show up for their church's primary meeting. The numbers are even lower for Sunday and Wednesday nights.
In a longer article on his ministry Web site, Elliff says missing Christians lack signs associated with regeneration. By staying away, they show they do not love fellow church members and they are more concerned about themselves than God. The large numbers of "inactive" members on most church rolls, he says, indicates a failure of pastoral care.
"All of these people have 'prayed the prayer' and 'walked the aisle,'" Elliff writes. "All have been told that they are Christians. But for most, old things have not really passed away, and new things have not come. Most are not new creatures in Christ."
Elliff, a brother of former SBC president Tom Elliff, lays blame on several factors.
One is reliance on altar calls, praying the "sinner's prayer" and immediately giving verbal assurance that a person is a Christian because of sincerity and accuracy of the prayer.
"You may not agree with my assessment, but it is my contention that our use of the altar call and the accouterment of a 'sinner's prayer' is a sign of our lack of trust in God," Elliff wrote in an article titled "Closing With Christ." "Do we really believe that the Spirit convicts and regenerates, and that His Gospel preached and read is the ordained means He uses?"
In another article on "Childhood Conversion," he criticizes preachers for enticing young children to walk the aisle and become baptized before they are mature enough to make such a decision.
"We must say that many, probably most, of those children that are supposedly being converted in our churches in the early days are showing no signs of conversion later in life," he wrote. "Think of all those who 'made decisions' at Vacation Bible Schools, children's programs, Sunday School emphases, etc., who are on our rolls yet have no real life in them at all. Is it not obvious to us that getting a child to make a decision about Christ in early years does not guarantee that they are believers at all?"
Elliff also finds fault with "entertainment" approaches to evangelism and feel-good sermons aimed at drawing a crowd instead of convicting sinners.
He also advocates "church discipline," where members of a congregation are held accountable for non-attendance and sin.
Elliff is part of a network of Calvinistic Baptists who meet annually in a "Founders Conference," so-named because they believe their views are closer to those who founded the Southern Baptist Convention than to other Baptists today who value methodology over theology. Their goal is to "reform" the SBC by moving the denomination back toward what they call the "doctrines of grace."
"With the return to and reaffirmation of the full authority of Scripture has come a growing awakening to the supremacy of God in salvation and the glory of God that should be displayed in local churches," wrote Tom Ascol, editor of the Founders Journal and pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Fla.
While many denominational leaders view the movement as suspect, Ascol said, "God is opening the eyes of a growing number of men and women to the riches of sovereign grace."
"This revival of historic Southern Baptist conviction about the grace of God in the gospel has continued to grow so that today, unlike 20 years ago, we have leaders at every level of denominational life and untold scores of pastors, missionaries and church leaders who are returning to 'the old paths,'" Ascol wrote.
While virtually all Southern Baptist leaders hold some Calvinistic views—such as "once saved, always saved," many have problems with notions like Christ died only for the "elect" and that only those whom God has foreordained are able to come to faith.
Elliff has in the past drawn controversy for saying he does not know, for example, whether infants who die automatically go to heaven.
In an audio file on his Web site, Elliff explained that babies and adults who are mentally deficient are "born sinners," because of Original Sin inherited from Adam.
He also believes "babies must be regenerated before going to heaven" and that "babies cannot be regenerated and later lose that regeneration" at a so-called "age of accountability."
Babies also cannot exercise faith, he said, which is the only way the Bible describes achieving regeneration.
Despite his uncertainty, Elliff said he is "optimistic" based on the Calvinistic doctrine that "regeneration precedes faith."
The question, therefore, is whether "God could graciously regenerate some or all of the babies who die … and they would express their faith on the threshold of heaven?"
"I don't know," he continued. "God makes clear he is just and he will do right. God makes clear he is more merciful than we. God does not make absolutely clear that there's any other way beside repentance and faith or that babies definitely go to heaven or hell, but I think we can be optimistic about that. I think God could do it on the basis of that doctrine."
Elliff said God is wise not to allow humans to know for sure the fate of infants who die. Knowing they might be in hell would only bring despair to those already grieving the loss of a child. On the other hand, if people were certain that all dying infants were going to heaven, he said, "Abortion would be the best evangelistic tool in the ages."
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.